Nurses in Exeter are taking part in the first of two days of industrial action in NHS trusts across England, Wales and Northern Island following the government’s refusal to enter pay negotiations.
Strikes planned in Scotland have been paused for consultation on a revised pay offer from the Scottish government, which deals directly with health service pay instead of employing an arms-length review body.
The Royal College of Nursing, which has been campaigning for fair pay for nurses since August 2020, said that today’s strikes will involve around 100,000 nursing staff.
These are the first such strikes in NHS history. A second strike is planned for Tuesday and further strike action with wider impact is expected in January unless the government agrees to negotiate.
The strikes follow health secretary Steve Barclay’s announcement earlier this year that NHS staff in England would get a 4% pay increase – a real-terms pay cut against retail price inflation of 11%.
The Royal College of Nursing, which is seeking pay rises of 5% above inflation, balloted its 300,000 members in response. Nursing staff at the majority of NHS employers voted in favour of industrial action over pay and concerns about patient safety being compromised by staff shortages.
Royal College of Nursing general secretary and chief executive Pat Cullen met Steve Barclay on Monday in the hope of beginning formal pay negotiations but the health secretary refused to discuss pay.
The nurses’ union says it has repeatedly offered to negotiate either directly or via the independent ACAS dispute resolution service but the government has declined all its offers.
Pat Cullen said: “Nurses are not relishing this, we are acting with a very heavy heart.
“My plea to patients is to know that this strike is for you too – it’s about waiting lists, treatments that are cancelled year-round and the very future of the NHS.”
25,000 nursing staff have left the profession in the past year. There are now 47,000 unfilled registered nursing posts in NHS England alone – a third of 133,000 vacancies across the service.
UCAS figures show that the number of students accepted onto UK nursing courses has fallen by 10% and London School of Economics research has confirmed that experienced nurses are 20% worse off in real terms than they were in 2010 because of successive below-inflation pay awards.
Katie Welsh, a learning disability nurse who has worked in the NHS for 37 years, said: “What concerns me is actually getting people to come into our profession. It’s a great profession, but unfortunately things have changed. I was paid to do my training. You weren’t coming out with huge amounts of debt.”
“You’ve got community nurses in Devon who are choosing between putting fuel in their cars to get to work and visit patients and putting food on the table. That can’t be right.”
She expressed concern about both recently-qualified and long-serving nurses leaving the profession.
She said that her daughter, who is also a nurse, was questioning whether she could carry on, while there are nurses who might have been willing to stay on to work beyond their retirement age but are now saying they’d had enough.
Sarah Newborough, a mental health nurse who has worked for the NHS for eight years, said: “People become disillusioned. I got to my third year of training and thought I’m not sure I’m able to enter a system in which working conditions are deteriorating, patient contact time decreasing, with pressure on nurses to do more with less.
“Certainly since 2015 when I started working in Devon the situation has become more fraught. Most nurses are struggling to get by. People who have been in the workforce for much longer than me have seen their workload increase and take home pay become worth less.
“It’s terrible that many of the student nurses that are coming through are conscientious, compassionate and committed to working alongside others to support their health and wellbeing, but are entering a system that is exploiting them.
“Being a nurse isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. We need to protect what it means to be a nurse.”
Strikes are taking place today and on Tuesday at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital in Wonford and North Devon District Hospital in Barnstaple.
These hospitals are now part of the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, after the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust merged in April this year to deliver core health services for 615,000 people across north, east and mid-Devon and specialist services across the south west peninsula.
Strikes are also taking place at the Devon Partnership NHS Trust, which is headquartered in Dryden Road and delivers mental health services across dozens of locations in the south west, and at NHS Devon Integrated Care Board, which is based at County Hall.
Nurses at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust, which operates six hospitals in the Torbay area, are also out on strike.
Some nursing staff at these trusts are continuing to work to ensure that life-preserving services are provided. Royal College of Nursing members working in chemotherapy, dialysis, intensive and high dependency care units, neonatal and paediatric emergency services have all been exempted from taking part in strike action.
Other non-critical services may be reduced to staffing levels similar to night shifts.
The Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said it is seeking to minimise disruption on strike days and ensure patient safety and staff welfare. It is asking patients with appointments at its hospitals to attend unless they hear otherwise. Emergency services remain accessible 24 hours a day.
More than 10,000 ambulance workers across nine trusts in England and Wales, including those at the South Western Ambulance Service, are also planning to strike on 21 and 28 December, while strikes by thousands of rail and postal workers are set to continue as the government refuses to shift its position on pay.
It has asked armed forces personnel and police officers to drive ambulances and provide logistical support to cover for striking NHS workers, prompting pushback from the Police Federation and senior army figures.
The TUC published analysis on Monday showing that 2022 has been the UK’s worst year for real wage growth since 1977 – and the second worst year since 1945 – as pay has failed to keep pace with inflation.
It says nurses’ real pay has fallen by an average of £1,800 over the past year and that they are now earning £5,000 a year less in real terms than they were in a decade ago.